1. Light‐induced phase shifts of the circadian rhythm of wheel‐running activity were used to measure the photic sensitivity of a circadian pacemaker and the visual pathway that conveys light information to it in the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus). The sensitivity to stimulus irradiance and duration was assessed by measuring the magnitude of phase‐shift responses to photic stimuli of different irradiance and duration. The visual sensitivity was also measured at three different phases of the circadian rhythm. 2. The stimulus‐response curves measured at different circadian phases suggest that the maximum phase‐shift is the only aspect of visual responsivity to change as a function of the circadian day. The half‐saturation constants (sigma) for the stimulus‐response curves are not significantly different over the three circadian phases tested. The photic sensitivity to irradiance (1/sigma) appears to remain constant over the circadian day. 3. The hamster circadian pacemaker and the photoreceptive system that subserves it are more sensitive to the irradiance of longer‐duration stimuli than to irradiance of briefer stimuli. The system is maximally sensitive to the irradiance of stimuli of 300 s and longer in duration. A quantitative model is presented to explain the changes that occur in the stimulus‐response curves as a function of photic stimulus duration. 4. The threshold for photic stimulation of the hamster circadian pacemaker is also quite high. The threshold irradiance (the minimum irradiance necessary to induce statistically significant responses) is approximately 10(11) photons cm‐2 s‐1 for optimal stimulus durations. This threshold is equivalent to a luminance at the cornea of 0.1 cd m‐2. 5. We also measured the sensitivity of this visual pathway to the total number of photons in a stimulus. This system is maximally sensitive to photons in stimuli between 30 and 3600 s in duration. The maximum quantum efficiency of photic integration occurs in 300 s stimuli. 6. These results suggest that the visual pathways that convey light information to the mammalian circadian pacemaker possess several unique characteristics. These pathways are relatively insensitive to light irradiance and also integrate light inputs over relatively long durations. This visual system, therefore, possesses an optimal sensitivity of ‘tuning’ to total photons delivered in stimuli of several minutes in duration. Together these characteristics may make this visual system unresponsive to environmental ‘noise’ that would interfere with the entrainment of circadian rhythms to light‐dark cycles.
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